The latest leg of our trip has taken us away from Agra (thankfully) and via an interminable train journey to Varanasi, city of Shiva and one of Hinduism’s holiest sites. After a false start on our first day here, when we endured a drawn-out battle with the local rickshaw drivers (which included Leila throwing a spectacularly impressive strop at one chastened autorickshaw-wallah) and ended up staying in a fairly shitful hotel close to the train station, we gathered up our things and dived deep into the labyrithine area around the riverbank.
This has proven to be an excellent move, as Varanasi’s a really fascinating place. It’s certainly the most palpably Indian and Hindu city we’ve been to thus far – religion seems to play a large part in virtually every aspect of life here. Along with the usual assortment of people, rickshaws and livestock, the narrow streets fairly groan under the weight of temples and shrines – everywhere you look there seems to be an idol of some description, or a congregation of chanting pilgrims.
The Ganges is everything you’ve probably heard – vast, beautiful and improbably filthy. This doesn’t seem to deter the hordes of Indians who go down for a dip every morning, but I’ve not been game enough to go anywhere near it (although we did take a boat trip, which was a very pleasant way to spend a couple of hours). Along with people washing clothes, bathing, praying, etc etc, a couple of the ghats (quays, basically) are used for the ritual cremation of dead bodies. This is, well, quite a sight.
There are gigantic stacks of wood piled high against the walls, and fires burning all day and night. It’s not uncommon to see bodies being carried down the street in funeral processions, and there’s apparently an intricate hierarchy governing who can be burnt where and how – higher castes get burnt higher up the ghat, and there are different types of wood that can be used, depending on how much the relatives are prepared to shell out. In a typically Indian concession to free enterprise and necessity, there’s also an electric crematorium, which is the budget option.
We’ve been loath to get to close to any of this – after all, a funeral is a funeral, and I wouldn’t particuarly like any tourists crashing mine – but we were able to see from afar during our boat trip. Watching in fascination, it took a moment to realise that the round object dangling off the end of the pyre we were looking at was in fact the burning body’s head. Wow. You just don’t see that at Caulfield cemetery.
Burning bodies aside, our visit has also coincided with Kumbh Mela, a relgious festival that happens once every six years. Apparently the “real” Kumbh Mela actually only really happens every 12 years, but there’s a “half” Kumbh held in the intervening sixth year, which is what’s taking place this year. The festival also doesn’t actually take place here – from what I can gather, it rotates between four locations, and this year’s is being held in Allahabad (about 100km back up the Ganges, located where the Ganges and its similarly holy tributary the Varuna), but because Varanasi is so religiously significant, a heap of people still celebrate it here. The scale of it is certainly impressive – since this year’s festival is the smaller one, just the 5 million pilgrims showed up in Allahabad. The mind boggles at how big the 12-year festival would be.
Anyway, we had a wander along the banks of the Ganges last night and happened across a heap of festival-related religious rituals, which seemed to involve ringing lots of bells and waving flaming braziers around. It’s fascinating to watch, but also kinda frustrating because, as with many things in India, the exact significance of and motivation for the ceremony evaded us. Regardless, the thing that struck me was just how different the Hindu religion is to the terminally dull, pontificating, church-bound, declining Judeo-Christian religions of the West. The temples and ceremonies burst with colour and life, giving a real sense that this is a living, breathing religion that is hugely significant a massive number of people. Equally, though, there’s a vaguely ominous, primal quality about it all that kinda unnerves me.
It’s difficult to describe, and it may just reflect my ambivalence about religion, but I find it both admirable and disconcerting that religious ecstasy (in the most literal sense of the word – ie. the mind escaping the body) is such a… such a normal thing here. I’m all for liberation of the mind etc, but I find the complete surrender of control a foreign concept. Perhaps this is my loss. I don’t know.
Anyway, I’ve been doing my best to read up about what’s going on, but the intricacies of it all are hard to grasp. In any case, the celebration seems to involve two things: a) swimming in the Ganges, and b) flying kites.
It’s b) that you notice the most. Everyone here seems to have a kite, or two, or three. It makes walking about something of a hazardous exercise – you’re constantly trying to dodge near-invisible kite strings, and everyone seems to think it’s a great joke if you get tangled up in one. I’m constantly impressed with the Indians’ ability to take nearly everything in good humour, but to my enduring shame I’m not always able to emulate it. Still, I’m doing my best.
Until next time…